Government and governance, International relations | The World

27 March 2018

Matthew Sussex takes a look at what Vladimir Putin’s victory means for Russians, for Russia’s region, and for the rest of the world.

Vladimir Putin faces a tough task in achieving the ambitious agenda he set down in his state of the nation address. Much of the international attention was understandably on the new wonder weapons he unveiled, including a nuclear-powered cruise missile. But Putin also promised to raise life expectancy from 73 to 80 years, double spending on health care, and increase pensions and bring 14 million Russians out of poverty over the next six years.

With a Russian economy heavily dependent on energy sales, and subject to an ongoing Western sanctions regime, it is difficult to see where Putin will raise the capital to achieve these goals. His only real option is to turn to China, which has adroitly positioned itself as the framework investment partner in the Russian energy sector, giving itself substantial political leverage over the Kremlin in the process.

Even so, there should be little cause for optimism about Russia’s economic isolation dragging it back towards rapprochement with the West, which is a mischaracterisation that frequently appears in analyses of Russia’s prospects.

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Put simply, there is no incentive for Putin to do so now, given the harshness of the rhetoric on both sides about a second Cold War.

Moreover, Putin respects strength. To back down on Ukraine, his assertive posturing in the Baltic Sea, or his view of NATO as a direct threat to Russia, would be a shameful capitulation at odds with the core premises of his foreign policy, which are built around the projection of Russian great power.

More to the point, Putin genuinely believes he is winning this contest. He has the proof that all he needed to do was to wait the West out – and to encourage it to splinter through the use of information warfare in the process. This includes the gradual fragmentation of the European Union, the sclerosis of the ‘rules-based order’, and the ongoing preoccupation of Washington with internal issues which have caused it to abrogate its leadership role.

Under those conditions, the question becomes ‘what do we do about Putin?’, rather than ‘what does Putin do next?’ This is even more difficult to answer.

The West has been locked in a reactive policy cycle with respect to Russia for some time, made even more problematic by the ongoing imbroglio about ties to Russia that envelops the Trump administration.

While the position being taken by the UK after the poisoning of the MI6 agent Sergei Skripal with a chemical weapon in Salisbury appears strong on the surface, the expulsion of Russian diplomats – even in a coordinated way – is symbolic but hardly likely to alter Putin’s behaviour.

Hence the most likely implications from Putin’s victory are effectively more of the same: Putin 4.0 will lead an emboldened Russia that remains economically vulnerable but structurally strong. At the same time, the West will continue struggling to come up with a coherent strategy to contain, marginalise, co-opt, mollify or otherwise deal with the Kremlin.

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Yet there is one final question that we need to start asking: who comes after Putin? By the time he finishes his new term he will be 71 years old. And while he may well go on to win more terms until he is of a very advanced age, Putin will ultimately face a succession problem.

The main existing prospects to succeed Putin are locked in combat with one other and may not be appealing to the Russian electorate. This means that at some stage, likely in the next decade, he will need to identify and groom a successor from the ranks of his current elite. Otherwise, he could emulate Boris Yeltsin and pluck a more junior person from obscurity, effectively tying their fortunes to his own.

Both options are risky and dangerous for the West as well as Russia. Having dominated Russia for what is effectively a political generation, Putin has also presided over a bureaucracy that believes fundamentally in his vision. If anything, many high-ranking public servants in the security apparatus think Putin has not gone far enough in promoting Russian strength.

Either way, whether Putin 4.0 becomes Putin 5.0 – or even worse – the idea of dealing with a post-Putin Russia needs to be something the West starts considering sooner rather than later.

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